Designer or artist? Jason Miller’s unorthodox work has left many unsure of how to define him. That hasn’t stopped the American creator of furniture and tableware going from strength to strength, finds Clare Dowdy
Jason Miller and I met in March, while making a documentary on design for the Italian sunglasses brand Persol to show at the city’s Salone del Mobile. Miller’s unconventional and North American approach to design made an intriguing contrast to the Italian aesthetic all around us.
New York City-born, Brooklyn-based Miller’s star is rising. He’s now finding that those early years of quirky, eye-catching, self-generated projects are starting to pay off. That means that his time is now split pretty evenly between his own furniture and tableware, and client projects. And that balance seems to suit him.
‘There’s a big difference between designing for industry and designing for consumers,’ he says. ‘I don’t have much interest in helping a company increase their bottom line. What intrigues me about doing it on my own is that in a way it becomes about the product and not about the brief.’
Take his 2006 Duct Tape chair, which he says is probably the best representation of his work. It’s a fairly standard-shaped armchair, with apparent splits in the fabric patched up in leather ‘duck tape’.
‘It’s about making things that interest people and myself. I’m not trying to get some idea across,’ says Miller. And yet, a theme does raise its head every so often – a different take on what it means for furniture to be damaged or less than pristine in some way.
His Dusty tables are just that: seemingly covered in dust (in fact, the maplewood surfaces are embedded with a dust-likefinish).
And then there are his Scotch Magic mirrors – single pieces of laminated glass designed to look as if they’ve been cracked and stuck back together.
Similarly, across his alternative dinner service, Seconds, decorations are intentionally distorted or left unfinished. Seconds is four years old, but it is about to go into production with New York manufacturer Areaware. ‘They are a small company doing a really good job, working with US designers,’ says Miller.
Seconds will also be part of his Milan offering this year, on display at the shop Dove Tusai along with some mirrors that are printed with an image, called Daydreams.
Miller’s unorthodox take on design no doubt has its roots in his background and training. After securing a BA from Indiana University and an MFA from New York Academy of Art, he worked as a studio assistant for Jeff Koons, as an art director for Ogilvy Mather and only then took on the role of designer in Karim Rashid’s studio.
He hot-footed it out of there to start his own studio in 2001, currently comprising two full-time employees and an intern, and has since picked up some respectable accolades: Bombay Sapphire’s Rising Star Award in 2005, and last year both Best Breakthrough Designer from Wallpaper magazine and a place in Forbes.com’s list of 2007 ‘tastemakers’.
And while he likes to support US manufacturers such as Kikkerland and Areaware (which is producing Seconds and DayDreams), he admits to having one eye on the major European clients.’It sure would be nice to crack those companies,’ he says.
However, while we are in Milan, he is aware of the contrast between the Italian and North American sensibilities. ‘The Italian approach tends to be a bit more romantic and the American is a bit more craft in a way.’
No wonder, then, that he has particular admiration for Ettore Sottsass’s 1980s Milan-based collective of young furniture and product designers, Memphis, who turned their back on some of their creative heritage.
In fact, rather than craft, Miller has been accused by other designers of being more of an artist than a designer. It’s not a distinction he’s particularly bothered about. And perhaps more importantly, it’s not one that his clients seem to make, either.